January 20, 2021

Does your publication’s audience trust your journalism? If they don’t, how can you earn their trust?

Trusting News launched in 2016 with support from the Reynolds Journalism Institute and American Press Institute. The project works with newsrooms and conducts research on what helps journalists actively prove their credibility and earn their audience’s trust. (I attended a Trusting News training last spring at Poynter and have partnered with them for nearly a year now in my role at The Seattle Times.)

The Trusting News website is full of resources and examples from newsrooms around the country. Assistant Director Lynn Walsh discussed how student newsrooms can adapt these strategies to be more transparent with their audiences. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What strategies have you seen help publications to build trust in a polarized political landscape? 

Any time a news organization is willing to be transparent about their decision making, that can be really helpful. A lot of mistrust in journalism stems from not knowing or not knowing how something works — when someone makes an assumption, generally those are negative.

Any time newsrooms can anticipate what people might have questions about and explain that upfront, whether it’s an editor’s note or a separate piece, that’s helpful. Anything you can do to explain how you’re doing your job and why you’re covering this story.

Student publications are unique in that their staffs and audiences turn over every few years. What makes building trust important to them specifically?

When you have a staff turning over so often, but also the people you’re reaching out to coming and going, having consistent policies will help. How do you choose stories? How do you approach ethical issues like anonymous sources? How do you handle corrections? These policies probably exist somewhere, and making them public will help.

If they make edits, that’s totally fine — treat it as a living document. Having policies written down and publicly accessible will help them more consistently hold themselves accountable and share this message.

A lot of Trusting News resources mention the importance of an “about” page to introduce your newsroom to the public. What things should student publications consider including on this part of their website?

There are so many things you can put on this, and it’s overwhelming to think we have to explain everything. Think about what questions you get often and tackle those first: Are people asking about crime coverage or anonymous sources? Write those explanations first.

Including these things can help every newsroom:

  • Corrections policies and how to get in touch about errors
  • The ability to contact individual journalists, whether through phone number, email or an online form
  • Your mission and approach to what you cover (or don’t cover)

Student newsrooms should also address conflicts of interest: How you handle sourcing and who you send to cover stories. Would it be a conflict for a student to talk to someone who’s also their professor? If your roommate plays on the basketball team, can you cover the team?

What examples have you seen of student publications doing these things well?

Annenberg Media (at the University of Southern California) is a newsroom partner of ours, and they have a great public ethics policy. It’s searchable and written in plain English with no jargon.

The Daily Northwestern has had students participate in our trainings and take it back to the newsroom. They do a good job adding editor’s notes or explanations that talk about why they chose the story.

Where should student publications start if they feel overwhelmed by all these ideas and the resources on the Trusting News website? 

Getting a “contact us” or “about us” page up is super helpful, and having those explanations about news decisions they make and ethical policies. Don’t hesitate to link to something like the SPJ or RTDNA code of ethics and say “this is our guide.”

Think about how people can get in touch with you and what your feedback loops are. You’re learning and living at college; how can you create a community with the people who are there, and how can they add feedback or criticism?

Finally, how well is your content labeled? Make sure opinion content is clearly labeled and specifies who that opinion is coming from. Readers don’t necessarily know what the term “editorial” means or who’s on your editorial board.

None of these things are picking on student newsrooms, because professional newsrooms don’t necessarily do all these things well, either. Student newsrooms can set a gold standard for what’s expected in trust and transparency.

How can student journalists get in touch if they have questions or want more information?

They can sign up for free coaching to meet with our team if they have questions or want feedback on something they’ve tried. We show up at a lot of conferences, including student media conferences like ACP and CMA.

Students can also apply to our free Trust 101 course when the next one opens up. We’ll also have a Poynter course coming out soon that will be free.

One story worth reading

College newspapers are a pipeline into the journalism industry, but most student journalists aren’t paid for their work, Mansee Khurana writes for Study Hall XYZ. “The inability of college papers to pay reporters can exclude people who can’t afford to work for free — who are disproportionately Black, Latinx, and first-generation students — from participating,” Khurana writes. “If participation in journalism continues to be exclusionary from the beginning, the industry will continue to replicate those exclusions further down the line.”

From The Lead’s archives: A more diverse student newsroom will make your publication stronger

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week’s newsletter: What student journalists can take away from last week’s Capitol attack

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com.

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com…
Taylor Blatchford

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